Thursday, June 28, 2007

Couscous and Garbanzos renewed

Ah, the osso bucco was delicious to the last bite. But that last bite was well before the end of the couscous and garbanzo mixture I made to go with it. And that lovely covered dish in the fridge just begged for a second chance. A new dress..........some new know what I mean. So I pulled it out, sat it on the counter and uncovered it for a while. We looked at each other, searching for a point of reference.

Perhaps it was the music I was listening to at that moment - Claudia Montes - a Spanish singer with a lyrical voice. I heard the Arabic influences in the music of Spain, and my mind wandered to that region of the world. Once there, it became obvious what my next step would be. I walked to Whole Foods and bought an eggplant, some tomato and a large yellow onion. Got home and fired up the grill. While it was heating up I peeled and sliced the eggplant, laid it out on a large dish and sprinkled some kosher salt on it. While the salt drew the juices out, I cut the onion in quarters, and sliced the tomatoes thickly. I then made an olive oil balsamic vinegar mixture and added a little ground black pepper and some more kosher salt. I patted the eggplant dry, poured the mixture over the veggies and headed out to the grill.

I find grilling veggies to be an exercise in focus. At least with my grill it is. It's an old grill and the flames aren't even -- one part gets a high flame and the rest is hit or miss. So I stand there, tongs in hand and spatula at the ready. I am constantly peering under the slices, watching them anxiously, waiting for that moment when they are toasty with those lovely grill lines across them, but not burnt. Flipping them over is a challenge, too, because I never know if they will slip through the grill and into the flame or actually land on the metal and stay there. I was lucky this time - only lost one tomato slice.

Headed in with my pile of grilled veggies. The couscous went into the micro, the cotes du rhone went into a glass, and when the grains were heated, I pulled them out, added the veggies, stirred, checked and corrected the seasonings and sat down to one of the best meals I had eaten in ages. I don't generally pat myself on the back in public, but folks, this one was a winner! Those grilled vegetables added a depth and complexity that even the osso bucco couldn't compete with. I lifted my glass and toasted the chef, and when I was done, I gave myself a standing ovation (much to my cat's disgust!)
For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share what natural remedies work for you and which don't, visit my other blog Second Opinion

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Endless Osso Bucco

I had guests visiting for several days, and we all went to one of my favorite local restaurants, Arriverderci. This place has been busy ever since they opened in 1995, and I discovered them about 4 months after they opened, right after I got back from a trip to Italy. At that time there were 2 owners, Tony and Franco. Tony is Roman, and Franco is Sicilian. Perhaps this explains the breakup - I don't know. (I do know that it's a miracle that they ever unified Italy - on the map, at least!) At any rate, Franco left town and Tony now has expanded his empire to include at least 4 other restaurants, with 2 more on the way. His formula is simple: offer terrific food in generous portions at very reasonable prices. Who could complain?

One of my friends ordered the osso bucco, which came on a bed of risotto with porcini mushrooms. The huge portion which arrived was enough to feed the Turkish army! She ate to her heart's content, and brought home the leftovers. The next day we had a lunch of leftovers - I ate my leftover curry from Bombay (my favorite Indian restaurant), and she had her osso bucco. When we were done, she put the rest of it back in it's container, and we put it in the fridge.

Having indulged myself for a week on restaurant food, I was ready to get back to my kitchen. You know how sometimes an ingredient will come to you, and you start searching for ways of cooking it? Well, for me it was garbanzos this time. I wanted to create a vegetarian meal that was hearty. Garbanzos kept coming up as the way to go. Look in the pantry. Yep. Got 'em. Also had a little couscous. OK - that works. What else? Onions and garlic, of course. Need a little color here. How about some parsley? Yes, and I have it in the fridge, too. Well, I'm getting a direction going here - clearly I'm in Claudia Roden territory, so I look there. Nothing that really speaks to me, but mint seems to leap off a few pages, and I have it growing in the garden, so why not? And lemon juice shows up as well -- I've got one of those in the fridge, too.

So as you've probably guessed by now, I don't have amounts of ingredients to give. As usual, I started with garlic and onions. About 2 cloves minced and I probably had 3/4 of a yellow onion. While sauteeing them, I boiled water for the couscous, and heated the leftover osso bucco in the micro. (Still don't have a couscousiere.....sigh!) Pour the water over the couscous and cover and continue to sautee the onions and garlic until the onions are golden. Add some cumin and ground coriander and stir. Since I was using canned garbanzos, I drained them and put them into the pan with the sauteed vegetables and stirred until they were heated. Turn off heat. Fluff the couscous with a fork and add the sauteed ingredients. I have a habit of using my scissors and cutting the parsley directly into the dish. I'm guessing it was about a couple of tablespoons. I added the mint at this point as well, and the heated osso bucco slices.

Yes, I know I said vegetarian meal.......but I made enough to last past the osso bucco stage. Stay tuned for the next chapter.....

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share what natural medicines work for you and which don't, visit my other blog Second Opinion

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Chimayo Chili Cheese Bread

My mom loved to cook. Her sister loved to bake. Fortunately for us, her sister lived about 5 minutes away. I remember answering the door one time, and there stood my aunt Janno with a steaming hot apple pie in her hands and a big smile on her face. She said "Hi" as she walked briskly into the kitchen, and put the pie on the window sill to cool. "Now don't eat any until it cools a bit," and out the front door she went, vanishing as quickly as she had entered. My nose led me back to the kitchen, and I stood there watching the steam come through the holes in the top crust. How long is "a bit?"

Aunt Janno taught me to bake. She taught me to make frosting, mix muffins and make cakes, rugelah and blintzes. I loved spending time with her in her wonderful kitchen, with an old fashioned cream colored enamel stove with the warming drawers up above and the metal and enamel handles to turn on the burners. No matter what we were baking that day, she always had the ingredients, and I always left with something that smelled wonderful, even if my version of it was a little imperfect. Well, sometimes a LOT imperfect!

But as I grew up, I followed more in my mother's footsteps. My older sister Leah had a gift for cooking as well, and it seemed natural for me to learn which herbs and spices went with which meats and sauces. Years later, when I moved to New Mexico, my husband Bob did most of the cooking, and I learned even more than I had at home. I learned the concepts of cooking, which freed me from reliance on particular ingredients and particular recipes.

The one thing that was almost impossible to get in New Mexico - as far as I was concerned - was really good bread. None of the local bakeries produced anything I was interested in. I was used to bread with a crust, and that was absent in the local stores. One day a friend of mine gave me a sour dough starter and a recipe for 100% whole wheat sour dough bread. The recipe called for mixing this starter with some flour and water and then stuffing it deep into a 5 pound bag of flour and letting it sit for several days. When ready to use, the starter was divided, placed in the refrigerator, and the bread was to be made not with the flour it had been sitting in, but with freshly ground wheat berries. Fortunately, I had found a health food store that sold wheat berries and would grind them for you. I must admit that the bread I made in those days was, unequivocally, the best bread I have ever eaten in my life!

That was then. Now I live in San Diego, within walking distance of a fabulous bakery. I can get many, many varieties of crusty breads, and so I no longer bake bread. Except that the last time I went to New Mexico, I visited one of my favorite restaurants - Rancho de Chimayo - just north of Santa Fe. I didn't actually eat there, as I had lunch with a friend in Santa Fe instead. But after lunch I drove up to Chimayo just to visit the restaurant, and because they also sell gifts there.

That's when I spied this chili cheese bread mix. Hatch, New Mexico is known for it's green chili, and Chimayo is known for it's red chili. I went for it.
The mix is, well, a mix. So you add an egg, some milk and some oil. Do we need instructions for this? But what I was unprepared for was the color of the bread - red. That, plus the flavor. Not really too spicy (unless you don't like spicy). The cheese flavor didn't really come through, but there was a hint of sweet, which was the perfect balance to the spicy. The other surprise was that this was a moist bread, rather than something dry, which is what I was expecting.
Served warm with butter, it turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to the spinach/parsley omlette with bacon which I served to my guest this weekend, which we ate out on my deck.

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share what natural remedies work for you and which don't, visit Second Opinion

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Pork chops with lavender butter

I've been doing a lot of gardening recently. Finishing the path to my front door, edging it on one side with stones, taking out a lot of old, half dead stuff, cleaning up the palette, as it were. Suddenly there's room to think about new colors, new shapes, and hopefully to group plants together that like similar amounts of water and sunlight. It's a good thing my yard is small. This kind of a thing requires a lot of planning, and I'm much more of a "shoot from the hip" kind of gal.

So I went to the nursery today, as well as the garden department of Home Depot. I had this vision of a flower called "kangaroo paws" - an odd sort of a plant, but for some reason I knew I needed it in my front yard. It comes in lots of colors, from pink to red to yellow. These days, it's red and yellow that call to me from the color wheel, so I selected three yellow ones, and then had fun selecting plants that would look good with them - purple basil, Japanese sedge grass, a small rosemary bush and some snapdragons.

One of the plants which is coming out is an old lavender bush. It suffered a blow when someone cut off a branch from the neighbor's elm, and when it fell, it landed on my lavender bush, splitting it in two. This was several years ago, and this stalwart plant managed to survive - and even thrive - for at least 3 years. But recently, half of it seems to have died. The other half is still alive, but it looks like an invalid with a grin. If this plant was in my back yard, I'd keep it and nurture it as if I were a hospice nurse. But it's right there when you walk through my gate. So I bought a young plant today to replace it.

With the old lavender coming out, I've got a lot of lavender to deal with. I certainly don't want to throw it out, and I am not going to add sewing pillows with lavender in them to my "to do" list. What to do? Again, it was a memory I had of a lovely afternoon in New Mexico, having lunch with my friend Julie and a friend of hers, Tom, which inspired me. Tom had a spectacular adobe house with a view that went on for days. One of the things he was passionate about was gardening, and my friend Julie is a master gardener. She helped him with his extensive gardens, which included a field of lavender plants. The other thing Tom loved to do was cook. He prepared an original recipe of cornish game hens with lavender butter which was the perfect thing to eat on his patio, overlooking the Sandia mountains.

While this helps with the lavender surplus, it doesn't solve it completely. If anyone has a great idea of what to do with a lot of lavender, I'd appreciate the input. Meanwhile, it was also "clean out the fridge" day, so I have added things to the lavender butter which Tom didn't. Also, I was more in the mood for pork chops than cornish game hen, so the whole thing morphed into this meal. I looked on epicurious and found a recipe for pork chops with sage butter which looked simple. I took the basic concept and ran with it. I didn't measure anything this time, however, so all measurements are more or less....

6 TBS butter
1/4 red onion, diced
1 1/2 tsp. diced garlic
1 TBS plus 2 tsp lavender leaves, cut
2 tsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 TBS olive oil
2 thick center cut pork chops

Melt 1 1/2 TBS butter in pan, add onions and lavender. Sautee until onion is toasted. Add garlic, sautee for another minute or more, till garlic is golden. Put mixture in a bowl, add the rest of the butter, parsley, salt and pepper and mix.

Put olive oil in pan, heat and add pork chops. Cook over medium heat until browned, turn over and reduce heat and cover until done. Spoon some of the butter mixture over the chops and serve.

Note: The butter can be put on a piece of plastic wrap when it is cool, rolled into a log and stored in the freezer. It's another one of those "Wow! I've got THIS to work with" kind of things that makes the freezer such a serendipitous place!

I served this dish with grilled asparagus. All I did was to mix some olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a little kosher salt, pour it over the fresh asparagus and put it on a heated grill. Oh, yum! Isn't summer the best?!!For more health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share what natural remedies have worked for you and which have not, visit Second Opnion

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Chicken tenders and red grapes

For some reason I was remembering a woman I knew when I was barely into my 20s. I don't even remember her name, but I remember her small apartment in New York City with large, multi-paned windows. And I remember sitting down to a dinner of chicken and green grapes on rice. At the time I thought it was the most sophisticated dish I had ever seen come out of a friend's kitchen. I had never seen such a pairing before, and certainly had never eaten anything that had cooked grapes in it. It obviously made a deep impression, because all these years later, I found myself longing for chicken with grapes.

I knew I wasn't going to re-create that dinner of so many years ago, but a fond memory does strange things. It lures you into exploring avenues you might have otherwise passed by. And memory, because it's so faulty at best, gives you creative license. Was that fennel she used? Did she have tarragon in the dish? I have no idea, so I made a dish up with the help of epicurious.

Now, you have to understand how I use epicurious, as well as how I use cookbooks in general. I will decide that I want to make chicken, for instance. and I will look for recipes containing chicken. Sometimes I have a "direction" in mind - say, Greek, or Thai for instance. Sometimes not. This time it was an ingredient which became essential -- the grapes. After looking through several recipes for chicken salad with grapes, one for chicken cooked with muscat grapes, and a recipe for pork with black grapes and balsamic vinegar, my head was filled with the raw material I needed. I walked away from the computer and into the kitchen. The ideas began to simmer in my mind and slowly, like the lovely reduction I saw emerge from the cast iron pot on my stove, my recipe bubbled up and onto this site. Unlike many of my own recipes I've written about in the past, this time I actually measured after chopping and halving, so I have a fairly decent approximation of what I did. I opened the package of organic, free-range chicken breast tenders I had splurged on in Trader Joe's, poured myself a glass of pinot noir and began.

5 chicken breast tenders
1/2 C chopped red onion
3-4 TBS olive oil
1 cup seedless red grapes, halved
1/2 C chicken broth
1/4 C balsamic vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon sugar
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
sprig of rosemary
several dashes of thyme (or fresh sprig)

Lay chicken breast tenders on a plate, sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper
Dice red onion
Rinse, dry and halve grapes
Heat a heavy pan and pour in about 1 1/2 TBS olive oil
Place chicken tenders in pan on medium high heat and cook, turning once so both sides are browned.
Remove chicken tenders to a plate.
In same pan, heat another 1 1/2 TBS olive oil
Add the onions and the grapes and cook until onions are tan - about 8-10 minutes
Add sugar and cook until it carmelizes. This will take about 30-45 seconds
Add broth and vinegar and bring to a boil
Reduce heat slightly and simmer until liquid reduces to about half
Add herbs and cook for another 30 seconds
Add chicken, cover and reduce heat. Cook for another 15-20 minutes.

Note to self:

I will try once again to grow tarragon in my garden. This dish turned out even better than I had imagined it might. I'd love to try it with tarragon instead of rosemary and thyme, though I can't really complain. While the sauce was reducing, I got to go for a walk and pick fresh rosemary which is growing about 4 blocks away. Still, the sweetness of the tarragon might be interesting.

I find that I agree with Ina Garten - kosher salt is somehow better for flavoring meats before cooking.

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share which natural products you've discovered work or don't work, visit
Second Opinion